Sven Beckert has been on a four-year international history hunt, tracking the trail of cotton through dusty archives from India to Argentina to see what it can tell him about one of globalization's first flowerings.
Beckert, a professor of history with an expertise in 19th century America, is hoping to understand the roots of the global economic ties that bind the world today by looking at one of the first truly global products.
"Once upon a time, it was the most important agricultural product, the most important export, and the most important industry," Beckert said. "This is a history of globalization through the lens of one commodity."
Cotton is a particularly apt product to focus on because it was largely produced in Asia until the 19th century, Beckert said. During the 1800s, however, cotton production, processing, and manufacturing moved west into the United States and Europe, until Asia was largely marginalized in the cotton world.
This was part of a split between East and West that led to the industrialized West gaining the vast economic power that is still felt around the globe today.
"I'm interested in how the world took the shape it did in the 19th century," Beckert said.
Beckert plans to publish his research in a book, The Empire of Cotton: A Global History, though he is still completing the writing.
The project on cotton grew out of Beckert's ongoing desire to place American history in an international setting. As he studied United States history, he said he became dissatisfied with accounts that were too focused within the country's borders and didn't give the international context within which U.S. events took place.
Perhaps it is Beckert's own international background that fed that dissatisfaction. Born in Germany, Beckert said he's been fascinated by history for as long as he can remember. He was suspicious, however, of the accounts of the World War II era and of the rise of German fascism that he heard in school. So he set about researching what happened on his own.
"I just didn't trust my history teachers," Beckert said. "On my own, I read a lot about history because I wanted to be able to argue with them."
Beckert was 17 when he wrote his first book on history, an examination of German workers' daily lives during World War II. When he went to the University of Hamburg, from which he received his bachelor's degree in 1987, he became interested in the history of capitalism. After graduating from Hamburg, he came to the United States, drawn by this nation's central role in the history of capitalism. He did graduate work at Columbia University and received his doctorate in history in 1995.
Beckert served as the Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in Business History at Harvard Business School from 1995 to 1996 and became an assistant professor in the History Department in 1996. He was named Dunwalke Associate Professor in 2000 and professor of history in 2003.
In addition to his work on cotton, Beckert is just beginning a book on the Industrial Revolution that he describes as "cotton writ large." He's also collaborating with several history professors on a new American history textbook that puts U.S. events within their international context.
Beckert said he's largely done with the research on The Empire of Cotton and about half done with writing. Though he remains excited about the project, he acknowledges that the research has been difficult. Because cotton has been such a global commodity, he has had to travel around the world to find reports, letters, and other primary documents.
He tells of dusty archives in India—an early center for cotton production—and the patience required to examine documents not available elsewhere.
"You just have to go with the flow," Becket said. "If you get impatient in an Indian archive, you're going to get nowhere."
Beckert was in the archives of an Argentinian bank during the economic crisis of 2001. As he read a merchant's letters and understood more about 19th century economic history, 21st century economic history unfolded outside. He said every half-hour or so protesters would pass by and the heavy metal gate of the bank would be lowered, to be raised again when they passed.
Research sometimes took Beckert in unexpected directions. He found himself learning about the West African nation of Togo after finding out that the German government, concerned about its reliance on U.S. cotton, began cotton production there in the early 20th century. Beckert traced that story, gathering enough information for both the book and for an article in the Journal of American History in September.
"This was an amazing story that meant I was suddenly writing about Togo," Beckert said. "It's never boring. Every day there's something new to learn."